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An American Hero
797 pages; ISBN 9780061547959
Ours is neither a nation nor a culture much given to extended hero worship.
Ralph Waldo Emerson understood his countrymen only too well when he wrote, "Every hero becomes a bore at last." After all, within his own lifetime Emerson would see both Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant cut down to size. There is no place in American life for the enduring national cult of a hero, no equivalent of France's national passion for Napoleon (a cult strangely enough by no means limited to the French), England's sentimental hero worship of Nelson (and, increasingly, of Winston Churchill), Russia's glorification of Peter the Great.
Perhaps it is the price of being a democracy, and of a deep, inherent distrust of the very idea of an elite—we are all egalitarians at heart, or at least feel a need to pay homage to the idea of equality. We have a natural tendency to nibble away at the great figures of the past; to dig through their lives for flaws, mistakes, and weaknesses; to judge them severely by the standards and beliefs of the present, rather than those that prevailed when they were alive. Thus Washington has been marginalized as a dead white male, and as a slave owner, and remembered more for his ill-fitting false teeth than his generalship. Thus Jefferson has been downgraded from his lofty position as the author of the Declaration of Independence to being treated not merely as a slave owner, but as a spendthrift and hypocrite who slept with his own female slaves. Thus Grant's tomb stood for many decades forlorn and almost unvisited on Riverside Drive and 122nd Street in New York City, despite the fact that it was, until the end of the nineteenth century, a bigger tourist attraction than the Statue of Liberty.
It is a simple fact of American life, this urge to splash graffiti on the pantheon of our heroes. In other countries—or cultures—the building up of national heroes is a full-time job, respected and well rewarded, in France with membership in the Académie Française and the Légion d'Honneur, in the United Kingdom with knighthoods and a cozy place in the cultural establishment; but in ours, whole profitable segments of the media and publishing industries prosper by tearing them down. Sic transit gloria mundi might as well be our national motto.
In his own lifetime, for example, Dwight D. Eisenhower underwent a rapid transition from world-class, five-star hero to being ridiculed as an old fuddy-duddy in the White House, out of touch with what was happening in the country, more interested in his golf score than in politics, deaf to the pleas of civil rights leaders (or at least hard of hearing), and, toward the end of his eight years as president, overshadowed by the youth and glamour of the young John F. Kennedy.
It was not just journalists, or editorial cartoonists like Herblock in the Washington Post, or intellectuals of the New Frontier, who made fun of Ike—even historians of World War II began to turn their heavy guns on him, particularly admirers of General George S. Patton. Patton's advocates formed a stubborn and robust revisionist cult that would reach its peak when Patton became the hero of Richard Nixon's favorite movie; they held Ike to blame for failing to turn his fractious subordinate loose to seize Berlin before the Russians did, and by that mistake ensuring a divided Germany and the cold war—even though Patton was too far south to have done this.
Like those revisionists who insist that Blücher, instead of Wellington, won the Battle of Waterloo by arriving on the battlefield with his Prussians at the end of the day, or those who believe that Lee would have won the Battle of Gettysburg if only he had listened to Longstreet's advice, Patton's admirers—sixty years after the fact—are still smarting over their hero's complaints. As to the validity of their views, one cannot do better than to quote the duke of Wellington himself, who, when a stranger came up to him on Piccadilly and said, "Mr. Jones, I presume?" is said to have replied, "If you presume that, sir, you'd presume any damned thing."
The guns had hardly fallen silent in Europe before Eisenhower's rivals and subordinates sat down to write their memoirs or edit their diaries for publication. Most of them were sharply critical of Eisenhower. On the British side of the Grand Alliance the newly ennobled field marshals Lord Alanbrooke and Viscount Montgomery, and General Lord Ismay, if they agreed on nothing else, were united in their view that Eisenhower was no strategist. Indeed General Sir Alan Brooke, as he was then, the acerbic Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), would remark acidly in his dairy in 1943 on the subject of his plan for the invasion, "Eisenhower has got absolutely no strategical outlook." 1
On the losing side, Hitler's generals, when they came to write their memoirs, were almost all critical of Eisenhower's caution, slowness, conventional tactics, and failure to develop the single thrust that might have brought the war to an end by the winter of 1944—strong stuff from those whom he defeated.
As for the senior American and British airmen—particularly the "bomber barons," among whom the most important and outspoken was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ("Bomber") Harris, Air Officer Commanding, RAF Bomber Command—they expressed in their war memoirs the conviction that had they been given a free hand and unlimited resources the war could have been won in 1944 without an invasion at all; that Eisenhower, in short, had merely wasted time, manpower, money, and fuel, all of which would have been more usefully employed destroying German cities (the RAF strategy), or the German rail network and oil industry (the strategy of the U.S. Army Air Force).
In the United States, enthusiasts for a Pacific-first strategy—centered on the figure of General Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. Navy admirals, most of whom had never wholeheartedly accepted . . .